Do Cold Showers Have Health Benefits?
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Does the idea of taking a cold shower send shivers down your spine? You probably cringe at the thought of the hot water running out mid-shower, or getting a blast of cold water when you turn on the faucet.
You may think you would never willingly take a cold shower, but hold on—before you completely rule them out, there may be some health benefits to cold showers. However, they shouldn’t be painfully, uncomfortably cold either.
“Cold can increase stimulation to the vagus nerve [which sends signals between the brain and internal organs], causing one to feel faint, nauseous, out of breath,” cautions Bianca Beldini, a physical therapist and owner of Sundala Wellness in South Nyack, New York.
It’s wise to start out with warm water and then drop the temperature little by little to allow your body time to properly acclimate. In other words, avoid switching the faucet all the way from hot to ice cold.
Here are some of the potential health benefits of showers with cold, or at least cooler, water.
They may soothe itchy skin
Soothing eczema, psoriasis, sunburns, or allergic reactions, is just one of the many benefits of cold showers. “Cool water can help calm down the itchy sensation,” says Florida-based board-certified dermatologist, Stacy Chimento, MD, of Riverchase Dermatology. “The cool water helps numb the itching sensations and pacify irritated skin, whereas a hot shower can make the skin even more sensitive.”
It’s important to note that while cool water usually is helpful in alleviating symptoms, it doesn’t fully address the underlying condition. “So if you have eczema, psoriasis, or even sunburns that are causing itchiness of the skin, you will probably need to consult your doctor about building a more complete regimen, which could include medicated treatments, more thorough moisturizing, and removal of allergens in your environment,” she concludes. (Don’t miss these tips on the best skin care routine for psoriasis.)
They may improve gut health
Your gut plays a role in more aspects of your health than was known in the past, which means it’s important to keep it in tip-top shape. The human gut may affect the immune system, sleep, heart and brain function, and more. And, you guessed, it, cold showers may help, theoretically.
“Our bodies naturally react to a cold shower by increasing the heart rate, which in turn pumps our blood quicker throughout our whole body,” says Inna Lukyanovsky, PharmD, a functional medicine practitioner and author of Digestive Reset: Fix Your Hormones and Digestion By Balancing Your Gut Microbiome and Adrenals.
“While the heart is pumping more efficiently, our overall circulation is improved—even after the shower,” Lukyanovsky says. “When circulation is activated, detoxification is activated, along with digestive system benefits. Plus, switching from warm to cold improves the smooth muscle cells, including the health of the stomach, intestines, and cardiovascular system.”
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They can reduce post-workout soreness
If you’re used to working out until you feel the burn, then you’re probably used to feeling the burn for the next few days, too. Recover more quickly with a cold shower. “Exercise—especially high intensity, heavy-strength training or eccentric movements—can cause microscopic tears to develop in the muscle fibers,” says Beldini. “These micro tears can create a focal inflammatory response in the tissue leading to a delayed onset muscle soreness response, otherwise known as DOMS.”
Cold immersion, as with an ice bath or cold shower, can help mitigate the DOMS (delayed muscle onset soreness) reaction. According to a 2015 review in Sports Medicine, the researchers concluded that cold water immersion in temperatures between 51 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit for 11 to 15 minutes showed the best results. Why does it work? “Microtrauma of tissue leads to edema, or swelling, and inflammatory responses in the tissue and the perceptions of pain,” suggests Beldini. “Cold immersion can decrease the edema, thus lead to a perceived decrease in pain.”
They may improve scalp health
Love letting a deluge of hot water beat down on your head after a long day? It’s such a relaxing sensation—but your hair follicles may be silently wishing you’d stop.
According to trichologist William Gaunitz—who studies the structure, function, and diseases of human hair and has been pioneering natural hair regrowth treatments since 2002—taking excessively hot showers, especially for long periods of time on a daily basis, may strip the natural healthful oils from the scalp and aggravate inflammatory conditions. (Here are the reasons why you have an itchy scalp.)
“Your skin and scalp have an inherent natural balance of oil and microorganisms,” he says. “When those are removed on a daily regular basis with ware and extreme heat, the scalp can become unbalanced and become a host for fungus and bacteria that like a warm, wet environment.”
With constant exposure to hot water, your scalp can also become dry and irritated, aggravating inflammatory scalp conditions like dandruff (part of seborrheic dermatitis) and psoriasis.
“Any inflammation can lead to excessive hair loss and create a downward spiral for trying to regain hair,” Gaunitz says. “Thus, shorter, cooler showers would allow for protection against inflammation, maintain your natural oil and microorganism equilibrium for skin and scalp balance, and in turn, help prevent hair loss.” Gaunitz caveats that he’s not saying cold showers prevent hair loss, but rather they help prevent inflammation—which can lead to hair loss. (Here’s how to do a scalp massage for hair growth.)
Lavanya Kirshnan, MD, a board-certified dermatologist, founder and medical director for Arya Derm in San Francisco, also agrees with Gaunitz, saying a hot shower can aggravate a sensitive scalp by further drying it and irritating it, which could potentially create inflammation.
“Excessive inflammation in the skin can worsen conditions such as eczema and seborrheic dermatitis, which may cause hair fragility and hair loss,” she says.
They can diminish swelling and puffiness
Missed out on your beauty sleep after a late night? Think about taking a cold shower for better-looking skin.
“For the skin, a cold shower will help reduce inflammation, swelling, and puffiness,” says celebrity aesthetician Joshua Ross, owner and founder of Los Angeles medspa SkinLab. “You don’t have to worry about going to a cryo facility and can easily create the same effect at home. Toward the end of your shower, just start gradually cooling down the water. At the very end, turn the hot all the way off and try to last as long as you can with the goal being at least 30 seconds or up to a minute. This is a great way to reap the benefits of an ice bath without having to ‘take the plunge.'”
Cold showers are not intended to cure any health conditions or replace any current medical treatments. They may help reduce inflammation related to exercise and may be less likely to irritate skin conditions, among other health benefits. But this rule still remains: you should never shower during a thunderstorm.
If you have any preexisting conditions, it’s important to consult your doctor to see if taking a cold shower regularly is best for you.
To get into the habit of taking a cold shower, Beldini recommends this method: “Starting off with warm water, one can gradually decrease the temperature for a specific time duration. Start with 30 seconds and then gradually increase in 30-second intervals until you can tolerate up to five minutes.” Avoid taking showers that are too long to avoid water watste. (Next, learn some quirks and facts about body temperature.)
- Bianca Beldini, DPT, MSOM, a physical therapist and owner of Sundala Wellness, South Nyack, New York
- Stacy Chimento, MD, FAAD, board-certified dermatologist at Riverchase Dermatology, Bar Harvor Islands, Florida
- Inna Lukyanovsky, PharmD, a doctor of pharmacy and functional medicine practitioner, Marlboro, New Jersey
- Lavanya Kirshnan, MD, FAAD, board-certified dermatologist, founder and medical director for Arya Derm in San Francisco
- Sports Medicine: "Can Water Temperature and Immersion Time Influence the Effect of Cold Water Immersion on Muscle Soreness? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis."
- William Gaunitz, WTS, a trichologist and creator of Gaunitz Trichology Method
- Joshua Ross, celebrity aesthetician and owner and founder of Los Angeles medspa SkinLab